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American Theatre: Incorporating American Sign Language

Thomas Mooney

Incorporating ASL into American Theatre

I had the privilege of attending the musical Spring Awakening, revived by the Deaf West Theatre and brought to Broadway for a limited engagement. The musical combined Deaf, hearing and hard of hearing cast members to put on this musical in a way it has never been performed; with American Sign Language being used by every cast member on stage as they sang. Spring Awakening, with music by Duncan Sheik and book and lyrics by Steven Sater, focuses on a lack of communication between parents and their children about sex and the barrier between them that forms due to an inability to understand each other. Not only was the musical accessible by the Deaf community because of the signing, the message being sent about communication that I took away from the show was representative of communication between hearing and Deaf people. Communication stems from understanding first, not language, and the ability to listen to each other and "put each other in your shoes" could lead to a higher understanding of hearing people to the Deaf community.

The first professional Deaf theatre company, The National Theatre of the Deaf (NTD), was established in 1965 by David Hays (Cowan 2006). Prior to "Deaf theatres," seeing theatre was complicated and unfocused for Deaf people. Their focus was drawn in different directions, either to the script on their lap or the interpreter who was away from the action on the stage. NTD not only served as an accessible theatre but as a new art form and style, "The resulting style blends the spoken word, ASL, sign-mime, invented theatrical sign language, music, and stylized individual and ensemble movement" (Sandahl 2014). Many Deaf professional theaters have since sprouted up, one notable theater being the Deaf West Theatre, founded by Ed Waterstreet in Los Angeles. Through its productions, Deaf West Theatre uses ASL not just to increase accessibility, but to add more depth and take away from the story. Deaf West Theatre seemingly chooses their shows to teach lessons on Deaf culture to the American people who see the show. In reference to their production of Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Tyrone Giordano remarks: "The story of the adventures of a boy and a runaway slave has an added layer of deafness on top of the issue of racism. The result is the perfect story about acceptance of the humanity in all of us despite our differences, or what we're told about those differences" (Giordano 2004).

One element NTD and Deaf West Theatre both use is shadowing, where "Deaf performers most often portray main characters, with hearing actors located on the stage's periphery voicing the main characters' lines" (Sandahl 2014). Deaf West Theatre's production of Spring Awakening put the hearing actors who spoke for the Deaf characters on stage, acting almost as their inner thoughts and an alternate version of themselves. This element in Deaf theatres blends together hearing actors and Deaf actors in a story so that they inhabit the same world, a sort of utopian one in which Deaf and hearing people can easily communicate. It also creates a bond and teamwork on stage between the Deaf actors and hearing actors who support each other by making each other's narratives understandable to all audience members. NTD has continued to put on productions and adaptations of shows for Deaf and hearing audiences alike.

When seeing Spring Awakening, I felt that there was no other way for this story to be told with the same meaning other than by a cast of half Deaf and hard of hearing people and half hearing people. To contrast the mission statement's of NTD and Deaf West Theatre, Giordano explains Waterstreet's opinion regarding NTD, "NTD's approach to deaf theater at that time was more concerned with the idea that English was to be the dominant language and enhanced through ‘beautiful signing,' a philosophy with which Waterstreet heartily disagree" (Giordano 2004). A criticism from many in the Deaf community regarding Deaf West Theatre is that their productions seem to cater to hearing people, therefore making certain moments and scenes inaccessible. One Deaf man, Max Graham Putter, who saw Deaf West Theatre's production of Spring Awakening said, "On a few occasions, actors did not face the audience when they signed and I was left trying to decipher them sideways" (Epstein and Needham 2015). In my own experience, I was up close and far to the right of the stage, and I noticed that from that angle, some of the singing was hard to see and I noticed moments where a Deaf patron of the theatre in front of me had to be signed to by her friend who accompanied her.

Deaf theatre has not only been important to the Deaf community by increasing accessibility of an art form that is geared toward hearing people but it is also culturally important in bringing together Deaf and hearing people. When looking around that Broadway theatre that night in January, I saw hearing people and Deaf people communicating, either through translators or lip readers or ASL students who had been learning sign language testing their skills on patient Deaf adults. At the stage door I saw a hearing actor in a wheelchair hugging a hard of hearing actor; both with huge smiles on their face. Theatre has always brought people together of all different kinds, and I had never seen it bring people together like it did that night. A greater understanding of not only art, but of each other was formed that night between an audience and a cast of people from all different types of life and a universal passion and love was shared. Events like this restore my faith in humanity.

Works Cited

Cowan, Alison Leigh. (2006, Aug. 10). Money woes threaten National Theater of the Deaf. NYtimes. The New York Times. Retrieved 29, May 2016:

Epstein, Kayla and Needham, Alex. Spring Awakening on Broadway: deaf viewers give their verdict. The Guardian Online. The Guardian. Retrieved 27 May, 2016: e-verdict

Giordano, Tyrone. (2004). Deaf West Theatre. Ability Magazine Online. Ability Magazine. Retrieved 28, May 2016:

Sandahl, Carrie. (2014, Oct. 14). National Theatre of the Deaf (NTD). Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 27 May, 2016: <>



Also see:
Deaf Pageants
Movies and the Deaf
ASL Movies

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